Weekend leisure: Backyard bees

By Catherine Smith

Beekeeping is a simple and rewarding hobby which can become rather addictive, discovers Catherine Smith.

Kim Kneijber who calls herself a hobbyist, sells the honey she harvests at Birkenhead Market. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Kim Kneijber who calls herself a hobbyist, sells the honey she harvests at Birkenhead Market. Photo / Sarah Ivey

There's nothing a writer likes more than finding an excuse to do something else, anything else, other than get those words down on paper. So it was that I found the perfect new hobby - and procrastination tool: a beehive in my own backyard. Every time I am stuck for words, I wander on to my deck to gaze at my buzzy girls working themselves to death (literally) on my behalf.

We'd been enchanted by the local honey sold by beekeeper Kim Kneijber at Birkenhead Market. She has built a thriving community of clients who want to keep bees in their own backyards. It was surprisingly simple: after checking that our bush yard would keep her bees happy, she registered us in order to control the spread of diseases such as American foulbrood (every apiary is on a MAF biosecurity surveillance database). We pay her a rental of $250 per year and share about 50kg of honey, Kim gets the balance. She installs a small hive of two boxes (called supers) - one for brood, one for honey, under a miniature pitched roof.

We were as proud as parents at a school prizegiving when she returned a couple of weeks later for an inspection and announced our original hive of 5000 bees had grown to 20,000, and we had to add another super.

The queen was happy, the industrious workers had fed plenty of babies and the hot, dry early summer meant the bush was flowering ahead of schedule and there was plenty of nectar source.

"People are surprised to hear that urban areas have more good nectar sources than rural," explains Kim. "The bees will fly past a poor source because it is more work. Here we've got borage, strawberries, tomatoes, vege and flower gardens - in the country fruit trees and a bit of clover are enough but they just love the manuka, cabbage trees and natives."

Kim admits that she too loves to just sit and watch her bees at work, but she is also monitoring them checking for mites or diseases, watching the brood pattern and flight paths, and making sure the bees are comfortable. A queen can lay 1000 eggs a day in summer. But worker bees can fly themselves out in six weeks as they fill a super with 30kg of honey in a month or so.

Kim calls herself a hobbyist, starting when a swarm landed in her garden some seven years ago.

Now she is president of the Auckland Beekeepers Association and has about 20 hives on sites around town. Many renters learn all the skills of managing a hive, taking out the honey and even, like Kim, building a licensed food kitchen so that they can sell their honey at markets.

Kim likes people to understand that like good wines, honeys are a product of the bees' territory, and change by seasons: spring honey is quite different from summer's. Colours range from creamy pale to a rich toffee brown, flavours from milky to citrusy to caramel.

She ferments some of her honey to make mead, an ancient honey wine. The wax goes to friends to make candles, cleaners and beauty products.

"I really want to share the joy of bees, I just love watching healthy happy bees flying in and out," she says. "Hives have different personalities, I love to just sit and watch the girls at work."

Sounds good to me.

The bees' knees

If you're interested in leasing a hive or becoming a beekeeper, contact your local beekeepers' association. Expect a good keeper to register the hive, have a contract, inspect them regularly (fortnightly in summer peak) and share a good crop of honey a year.

* Auckland Beekeepers Club

* Franklin Beekeepers Club: Ph (09) 232 0280

* Whangarei Bee Club whangareibeeclub@xtra.co.nz

* Waikato Domestic Beekeepers Association: Ph (07) 825 2691

* The New Zealand Beekeeper journal of the National Beekeepers Association

- NZ Herald

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